NFL High-Quality Highlights Hardly Worth the Effort

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Whether you're a Packer backer or are more into Tebowing, one treat on NFL.com has in store this year is the potential to watch a live stream of the Super Bowl online. To get ready for the big day, we've taken a run through the set-up required to watch NFL game highlights during this weekend's NFL league playoffs.

First, a word of caution for those looking for live playoff streams: Many of the sites that purport to offer a live stream (and whose ads even say "start streaming live, no extra software required") are actually just fronting sales pitches for satellite services or other questionable practices. It also doesn't help that NFL.com/live takes you to pre-recorded content for the league's fantasy football television program.

For our set-up testing, we chose to watch game highlights during the live Broncos-Steelers nailbiter on Sunday, entering through the main NFL.com home page.

For the initial 45-60 second game highlight clip we watched, we were forced to view a 17-31 second advertisement beforehand. Then, once the first frame of video started up, it took most of the first 15 seconds to resolve from blobs on the screen to more visible versions of players on the field.

Thank goodness for instant replay and alternate angles, since the first camera angle is often completed within the first 10 seconds. After watching two highlight clips this way, we opted for the "unlock higher quality video" option by clicking on a prompt that appears briefly on the screen at the start of each highlight clip. You can also find this option on a permanent but very small set of text in the bottom left of the video window.

When either of these is clicked, the next step in the process takes about three minutes to accomplish. Here's a play-by-play of the three-minute path to higher quality video:

30 seconds. In the first thirty seconds, a pop-up window that blocks the video window prompts the user with several paragraphs of information about the Akamai NetSession download that will be required to view higher-quality content.

1 minute. Second, the downloaded file is about 14.8MB, which took an average of 1 minute and 10 seconds to download.

1 minute. Once the file is downloaded, at least on the Macintosh platform, nothing happens. The user then has to go find the downloaded file, wherever the default download location on their computer might be. For our testing, we'd used the Mac-standard Downloads folder. When we opened the Downloads folder, though, it was a bit tricky to find the Akamai file, primarily because it didn't include "Akamai" in the filename. Turns out the file was way down the list of downloads, since it was named NetSession.dmg rather than Akamai NetSession. In addition, since the NetSession.dmg was created on December 15, 2011,  it also doesn't appear at the top of the listing for recent downloads.

30 seconds. Installing the 39.4MB application is fairly straightforward. An added benefit with a browser like Safari is that NetSession doesn't require the browser to be restarted.

Once the three minutes of time have run off the clock, you can get back to watching the highlights. The small text in the bottom right of the browser video window now says "HQ Video Delivered By Akamai" instead of the previous Unlock message.

In our testing, nothing really changed in the presentation. First, control-clicking the video window revealed that both the Akamai NetSession and the non-NetSession video both used our installed Flash Player 11.1.102.55  (which we'd previously installed; doing so does require a restart of the Safari browser).

Second, the other thing that didn't really change was the quality of the video in the critical first fifteen seconds. We expected quality to rise dramatically, since the whole point of spending three minutes to download and install NetSession was to "unlock higher quality video" for our viewing enjoyment.

After the commercial rolled, the video for the first fifteen seconds still hovered at 500Kbps, yielding a fairly blocky image on the screen in the regular video window and almost unviewable content in full-screen mode. After the fifteen seconds, the bandwidth indicator showed the video bandwidth then popped to 1.2Mbps for another 15 seconds and  then up to 2Mbps for the final 15 seconds of our 45-second highlights test clip. On longer highlight test clips we did achieve a jump from 500 kbps to 3Mbps, after the first 15 seconds of viewing.

NFL Streaming

The 3Mbps looks acceptable at full-screen viewing, but there we ran into another issue: As soon as the highlight clip is completed, the full-screen mode drops out and back to the in-browser video window, where a countdown to the next clip proceeds. The web page then completely refreshes itself, and the next highlight clip starts, meaning that video drops back to 500Kbps and manual intervention is required to take the video back to full-screen mode. It's a bit frustrating to have to go through so many steps to view highlight clips that last an average of 45-60 seconds.

Our assessment of the three minute set-up required to view higher-quality content (not HD content, mind you, as Akamai doesn't guarantee—or consistently deliver—HD content in our testing) is that it may be worth it for live game streams, but is only worth spending three minutes on if you don't have access to ESPN on television to watch the same highlight clips.

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